Ethics and Governance

Governance in Irish charities

Sep 13, 2019
Francis McGeough reports on a study of governance practices in fifty of the largest charities in Ireland which reviewed the information contained in their annual reports.
The importance of good governance in charities was highlighted by shortcomings in two well-known charities last year (Rehab and the Central Remedial Clinic). Bad publicity from these events had a serious impact on the fundraising efforts of all charities with many reporting a substantial drop in donations. Donors to charities need to be assured that their funds are being used appropriately and the requirement for increased accountability highlights the importance of governance practices in charities. Charities must not only apply the highest standards but must also be seen to be behaving appropriately.
A key task of the recently established Charities Regulatory Authority (CRA) is to increase public trust in the charitable sector. The legal framework under the Charities Act 2009 gives the CRA legal tools to do this. However, the essence of good governance lies in the culture of an organisation rather than following the letter of the law. 


The word governance originates from the Latin word meaning to steer or to give direction. While, there is no all-embracing definition of governance, there is agreement that governance involves taking responsibility for managing the organisation, balancing the needs of stakeholders, ensuring accountability to stakeholders, and ensuring that the organisation achieves its objectives. Therefore, the Board should have a strategic focus; with a focus on organisational performance, and a clear division of responsibilities between the board and managers.
Charities have a valued status in society due to their good deeds. Consequently, charities are likely to be held to a higher set of standards. Thus, when things go wrong, they are particularly susceptible to public disillusionment. Therefore, charitable organisations must ensure that they maintain their reputation. Good governance practices can help in this process by underpinning public confidence in the charity, and reduce the likelihood of scandal. 

Complexity of governance in charities 

In publicly quoted companies, the Board represents shareholders and they hold the management to account for their performance (measured by profits and share price). However, for charities, there are a number of complications: Firstly, there may be many stakeholders with conflicting views on how the organisation should be run; secondly, there may be no agreed measure of performance and stakeholders may have different views on what is good performance which increases the difficulty for the board in holding the managers to account; thirdly, many charities rely on the goodwill of their volunteers and managers who may become resentful if their actions are constantly questioned by the Board. 
Therefore, charities must find the right balance between trust and control. Too much control can lead to distrust and poor relations with the board. On the other hand, too much trust can lead to complacency and potentially bad behaviour.


The annual reports of fifty of the largest charities in Ireland were reviewed to determine the level of disclosure of the key elements of governance. The charities were identified from the Boardmatch Ireland listing of the hundred largest charities in Ireland. The annual reports were downloaded from the charities’ websites in October 2014.

Therefore, it would be expected that the latest reports would be for 2013; however, 30% of the charities had annual reports relating to 2012 or earlier (Table 1). While there may have been a delay in uploading the accounts onto the websites, it is surprising -- given the importance of the website as a communications tool -- that the websites did not have the latest annual reports. 
In relation to the disclosure of the key elements of governance, Table 2 sets out twelve elements of governance are derived from governance codes such as Boardmatch Ireland and the UK’s Charity Commission’s Statement of Recommended Practice (SORP) and shows the number of organisations which reported each element in its annual report. 
Most of organisations examined provided the names of the board members in their annual report (forty three organisations representing 86% of the sample).  
In relation to the elements that could be used as proxies to determine the effectiveness of the board, the level of reporting by the organisations examined is mixed (the percentage of organisations disclosing these details is outlined in brackets following the element). Board effectiveness can be measured through the recruitment process for board members (26%) biographical details of the board members (6%); length of time on the board (6%); the existence of induction processes (16%); the number of board meetings (24%); and the existence of sub-committees (52%). Therefore, readers of the annual reports would have difficulty in assessing board effectiveness in managing the organisation. 
Notwithstanding the recent controversy about pay levels for managers in some charities, only fourteen organisations (28%) disclose the pay levels for their senior managers. 
In relation to resource management, the level of disclosure is again quite low, with 44% of organisations identifying their key risks and outlining how they manage these. In addition, only 20% of the organisations outline what their policy in relation to reserves is.
In relation to the disclosure of non-financial information, a majority (58%) disclose some information. The study does not attempt to evaluate the quantity or quality of the non-financial information disclosed but simply examines the existence of non-financial information. 
The final element examined is whether a statement of compliance with a governance code is made. The research finds that just 22% of organisations disclose such a statement. This may be due to the relative newness of a governance code and as such, it is expected that this will improve in the future.
Table 2 shows that only three of the twelve elements are disclosed by more than half the organisations. Overall, this suggests that the level of disclosure is limited and this is further emphasised by Table 3 which outlines the range of elements disclosed by the organisations examined. Table 3 shows that thirty of the organisations (60%) disclosed three or less of the twelve elements. While, only four organisations (8%) disclose ten or more elements.


The research suggests that there is considerable room for improvement. In relation to the dates of the annual reports, it is a matter of concern that fifteen organisations did not have their latest accounts available on their websites. The research suggests that organisations are publishing a very limited amount of information. Thirty organisations (60%) disclose three elements or less, while four organisations (8%) close nine or more elements. Furthermore, only three elements are disclosed by more than half of the organisations. 
In overall terms, it would be difficult for the readers of the annual reports to be able to assess the effectiveness of the board. Furthermore, given the recent controversies about remuneration levels in two Irish charities, it is somewhat surprising to see that only 28% of the organisations surveyed disclosed remuneration details of their senior managers. 
The annual report provides a window into what is deemed important by the organisation and is also an opportunity for the organisation to account to its stakeholders for its stewardship. If that is the case, the evidence presented here would suggest that Irish charities place limited emphasis on presenting information on governance and performance. In today’s environment, this is a missed opportunity. However, this does not imply that there is a problem with governance standards in Irish charities but it does suggest that charities must review the information provided because they should not only apply the highest standards but must be seen to do so. In this regards, there is much room for improvement. 
Francis McGeough PhD lectures in Accounting and Finance at the Institute of Technology, Blanchardstown. This article is a shortened version of a paper to be presented at the British Accounting and Finance Association annual conference in Manchester in March 2015.